Another campaign reform roadblock

November 30, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Before Sept. 11, one of the principal legislative objectives of congressional reformers was campaign finance reform, with advocates of both parties poised for a final push to enactment.

The Senate had already passed its version of the bill banning soft money, and the House, having approved such legislation in two previous sessions, was ready to do the same.

But now, with only weeks before the end of the year, the legislation appears stalled, at least until Congress comes back from the year-end holidays. It has been sidetracked, its sponsors say, by the intense focus on Capitol Hill on anti-terrorism, which has blunted, for the time being, a campaign to get campaign finance reform out of the clutches of House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Last spring, the speaker, along with his muscleman, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, used a parliamentary maneuver to keep the House bill from a vote. They engineered a rule for its consideration that in the sponsors' opinion was a recipe for defeat, requiring a series of individual votes on amendments rather than one encompassing vote.

Rebelling, the backers of the bill - including 19 Republicans - rejected the rule, with the expectation that the legislation would then move to the House floor on a rule more to their liking. Instead, Mr. Hastert said the reformers had had their chance and he was not going to bring it up under any other rule.

This sort of obstructionism had been used twice before by foes of the bill, once under Speaker Newt Gingrich and later under Mr. Hastert.

Both times, the advocates got it to the floor by the device of a discharge petition, whereby a majority of the House, or 218 signatures, could bring it to a vote by bypassing the speaker.

In both cases, the speaker yielded when the petition approached 218 names and the bill passed, only to die in the Senate.

But this time, when the sponsors announced they would circulate another petition, Mr. Hastert declared that unless it arrived on his desk with 218 signatures there would be no vote.

The chief sponsors, Republican Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Democrat Martin Meehan of Massachusetts, quickly got more than 200 names, and after a summer slowdown, were up to 209 on Sept. 10.

Then came the attacks that put the campaign on the back burner.

Since then, it has been a struggle to corral the remaining votes needed.

Another Massachusetts Democrat has now signed, and a second has pledged that he will be the 218th if the list gets that close, thus requiring only seven more signatures.

But the Republican leadership is said to be leaning hard on its members not to crack.

The most outspoken foe of campaign finance reform, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, recently wrote to The New York Times, which editorially supports the bill: "I am astonished that while American special forces are hunting Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and congressional and Postal Service employees line up to be tested for anthrax, you continue to obsess about `campaign donors.'"

Americans, he went on, ranked campaign finance reform "near the bottom of their list of priorities before Sept. 11; now it has apparently dropped off the list completely as the president, Congress and the country are focusing on terrorism and the economy."

Nevertheless, the petition drive is going forward, with Common Cause and other reform groups focusing on six Republicans who voted against the Hastert rule last spring but haven't signed. While they still hold out the hope of reaching the 218 before the end of the year, Mr. Meehan says it's more likely that it won't happen until 2002.

Another target is the Congressional Black Caucus, some of whose members say they need unregulated "soft" contributions if they hope to be re-elected in tough districts.

Also, organized labor is concerned that without soft money it would not be able to compete.

But Mr. Meehan remains confident.

"We have people indicating that if nothing moves, they'll sign it," he says of the petition. "We'll get there."

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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